The Reagan administration, dismayed and angered by Israel's heavy air raids into Lebanon, yesterday hastily postponed until Tuesday a decision whether to lift its five-week-old suspension of deliveries of F16 jet fighter-bombers to Israel.
As recently as Thursday night, senior administration officials had said privately that the suspension, ordered by President Reagan on June 10 after Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Iraq, would be ended yesterday and that 10 F16s would be sent to Israel. Reliable sources said the wording of the announcement even had been worked out.
Then, the sources added, word of Israel's air strikes against Beirut and other targets in Lebanon was relayed to Reagan just as he was sitting down yesterday to his regular morning meeting with his top national security advisers.
That touched off an intensive reappraisal of the situation that finally resulted in State Department spokesman Dean Fischer appearing at his regular daily press briefing an hour behind schedule to announce that no action will be taken on the F16s until Tuesday.
Fischer, operating under what the sources called strict White House orders not to publicly link the new delay with the Lebanon raids, said only that a review of the Iraqi reactor bombing was continuing. But he did read a statement deploring "the intensified violence, civilian casualties and loss of innocent lives" caused by violence across the Israel-Lebanon border.
The United States, he added believes "it is imperative that a cease-fire be established in this volatile area," and he said Reagan has asked Philip C. Habib, the special U.S. mediator working on the Lebanon crisis, to go to Israel immediately "as the first step in this effort."
In private, administration officials, who declined to be identified, said the unexpected air strikes ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had made it impossible to follow the original timetable of releasing the F16s without provoking intense anti-American outburst throughout the Arab world.
These officials said the Israeli action had caused great anger and chagrin within the White House and the State Department over what is viewed here as Begin's disregard of U.S. interests in the Middle East, including the need to maintain good relations with the Arab countries.
Some officials said that Israel's launching of the air strikes on the same day that Begin knew the F16s were to be released could be viewed as a deliberate attempt to embarrass the administration and drive a wedge between it and such moderate Arab states as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
But, while they made little effort to conceal their anger at Begin, the officials were much less clear about what might be done to rein him in and make him more sensitive to U.S. interests.
Yesterday's U.S. reponse, they conceded, was a time-buying maneuver that left unanswered the question of whether the planes will be released Tuesday after the situation has quieted a bit or whether the administration will seek, through Habib, to put pressure on Begin to cooperate in a cease-fire and otherwise moderate his increasingly militant tactics.
Although the officials insisted that no decisions have been made about the next U.S. move, some said frankly that the idea of a successful squeeze play against Begin does not appear promising.
Lending credence to that view was the defiant position taken yesterday by Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who publicly expressed "displeasure" over the F16 decision and called for the United States to "reconsider it as soon as possible."
Habib, who was in Saudi Arabia yesterday, undoubtedly will use the time between now and Tuesday to try and wring some tension-relieving concessions out of the Israelis and their Arab opponents in the complex Lebanon situation.
But, the officials said, if he doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, the likelihood is that the administration will have to concede that the political and strategic pitfalls of risking a confrontation with Begin are too great and let the planes go. That, the officials added grimly, is what Begin appears to be counting on.
Some officials speculated that the administration might release only some of the F16s, but others noted that such a move would only prolong the charges of confusion and mixed signals directed against Reagan since the suspension originally was put into effect.
Initially, four F16s, scheduled for delivery in June, were held up pending an investigation of whether the Iraqi raid violated Israeli agreements to use American-supplied weapons only for defensive purposes. Then, when it became known that an additional six planes were due for shipment yesterday, the administration said a decision on all 10 aircraft would be made by that time.
To justify the new delay in a way that did not link it with the Lebanon raids, Fischer resorted to the bureaucratic dodge of asserting that yesterday's originally specified delivery date for six of the planes was incorrect.
That, he implied, referred only to when the planes were scheduled to leave Fort Worth for Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, where they are to undergo final outfitting for the flight to Israel -- a process scheduled for completion Tuesday.
Fischer said these six planes were transferred to Pease Thursday night, but he added that the other four -- technically the only ones involved in Reagan's suspension order -- are still in Texas and will require approximately 10 days to be readied for shipment when and if they are released. a
But, in the face of repeated questions about what actually will happen Tuesday, he refused to commit himself. Instead, he said repeatedly that the six planes in New Hampshire are scheduled to go to Israel Tuesday and that the administration expects the review involving the other four to be complete by that time.